Questions About School Selection

When should I make my med school list?

Most applicants start crafting their list in the spring prior to application.  Almost all applicants include their public state schools on their list, so early on, check your state schools to be sure that you’re fulfilling their requirements (if you don’t know your state schools, use the AAMC Medical School Admission Requirements site to find them.

It's hard to develop the list without your MCAT and GPA, so much of the work will be done after you've taken your MCAT. 

You'll want to submit your application in June, with at least one school listed. Some applicants will submit the application with one school listed to secure an early place in the verification line (the longer you wait, the longer the verification process takes). They can then do additional school research and add more schools without losing their place in the verification line.

How do I learn about the schools?
  • The official guides are the AAMC Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) for allopathic (MD) programs and AACOMS Choose DO Explorer for osteopathic (DO) programs.

Other resources we recommend:

  • Talking with peers and mentors about what they'd suggest.
  • Attending info sessions at HPA (and virtually), where we bring admissions representatives to talk about their schools. Recordings are housed on our website.
  • All Access Medical School Podcast hosted by Christian Essman, the director of admissions at Case Western
  • Medical school fairs, both virtually and in person, where many schools are in attendance and you can drop by. We post these in our Vitals newsletter.
  • HPA Facebook School Spotlights - we post a brief snapshot of a school every Wednesday in the spring.
  • In your application year, we'll provide more data and resources via our Canvas site for applicants.
What are the most important factors in building my school list?
  • Purchase access to the AAMC publication, Medical School Admissions Requirements (or MSAR). This will be your official guide to MD and MD/PhD programs.
  • Is the school public or private?  Consult MSAR or the HPA spreadsheet to determine how much your state residency will play a factor when applying to public medical schools.  Look at how many non-resident matriculants the school had in last year’s entering class. Generally speaking, we will advise you to have all of the public medical schools in your home state on your list, plus private schools of your choosing.  If you are not a U.S. citizen, this will restrict your list.
  • Curriculum…  What type of teaching styles allowed you to learn best at Princeton? How interested are you in doing independent research? Are you interested in a problem-based or integrated curriculum, or more traditional lecture style? In the clinical years, where will you spend your time? What kinds of patients will you see? Visit the schools’ websites and the curriculum explanations in the MSAR to get a better sense of how this differs from schol to school.
  • Seeing Patients…  How soon would you like to get into a clinical setting? Does the school put you in the clinic right away, or after one semester or part of a “block”?
  • Location…
    • Where will you be doing your clinical work and rotations—what types of hospitals? What patient demographic?
    • Where do you go to have fun and relieve stress during difficult times—do you go camping or do you go clubbing?  City or country?
    • Who is your psychological and emotional support—family? Friends?  Will they be close by?
  • How much of a difference in cost of attendance and average debt is there among your schools? Your home state public medical schools will be a good deal cheaper to attend than private medical schools. Is the difference going to radically change your amount of long-term debt or is the difference really not that great in the big scheme of things?
  • Remember that where you end up going may very well come down to a gut feeling based on the front-row seat you will have on your interview day. In the end, the decision is often instinctive, especially when all other ‘rational’ factors are relatively equal. You’ll know so much more after you’ve interviewed.
  • Also of note:  We recommend you apply to about 20 well-chosen schools. The national average number of applications per applicant in 2021 was 18.  The Princeton average is a little higher. 
Is there a certain number of medical schools I should apply to so that I maximize my chances of acceptance?

Looking at our med school applicants over the past four years, for students and alums who were accepted to at least one med school, the average number of applications they submitted was 23. For those who were not accepted to medical school, the average number of applications they submitted was also 23! Getting in has a lot less to do with quantity than strategy. Our most successful applicants were those who applied to 16-20 medical schools; as a group, they received an average of 3.7 acceptances per applicant. Applicants should target schools where their academic metrics, experiences, and interests match the student body. You can consult the AAMC MSAR for average MCAT & GPA data for each allopathic (MD) school, and individual websites often describe “selection factors” they are looking for in applicants. For real life examples of how students target schools and demonstrate their fit, read some of the AAMC’s Anatomy of an Applicant bios, including this one for a Hopkins student who completed postbac work and is now a student at UT Southwestern.

I’ve heard that most people apply to about 20 medical schools, but also that only about 40% of applicants get into medical school every year. Why not just apply to a lot more schools to have a better chance at getting in?

There are a few reasons that we recommend students limit the number of schools:

  • It’s expensive: each school is about a $130 cost between primary (common) and secondary (school-specific) application.
  • Many schools that take zero to few out of state residents, so time and money spent on those applications could be better invested elsewhere.
  • You don’t want to apply anywhere that you would not be happy attending, in terms of the school and what it offers, including its location—you do not want to apply, be accepted to only one school that you don’t actually want to attend, and turn down that acceptance; this is a significant red flag in the process and could be viewed as a lack of commitment to the medical profession.
  • Most significantly, it takes time to properly research each school and write a tailored secondary application in a timely manner. Students who apply to too many schools may spread themselves too thin and return poorly-constructed secondaries, which can negatively affect their candidacy, or spend too much time on “reach” schools to the detriment of their candidacy at schools where they may be a better fit.

You will have a finite amount of time and money, focus and mental energy to commit to the application over the summer and you want to invest it wisely. We work closely with applicants to help them craft realistic school lists.

I know how hard it is to get into top med schools. Is there anything I can do to try to maximize my chances?

For starters, take notion of "top" medical schools and "rankings" with a grain of salt. You will receive a high quality medical education wherever you go. There's a lot less difference between medical school programs than there is between colleges.

It’s going to just sound like a series of platitudes, but they’re looking for future professionals who are intellectually curious, who embrace lifelong learning, and who have already proven themselves as leaders. They tend to seek innovators and visionaries who have a strong sense of themselves and their values, and who have the vision and drive to constantly improve and grow while also demonstrating a commitment to caring for patients from all backgrounds with humanism and empathy. Most schools’ admissions websites include something about selection factors (e.g.,  NYUWash UCornell; if they do not state them directly, you can glean them from the school’s mission and how they present themselves through their online admissions information.

The MSAR online publication also includes data for each medical school regarding the range of MCAT scores and GPAs for accepted applicants, as well as how many of their students participated in clinical volunteering, shadowing, research, community service, military service, and other experiences. You can subscribe to the website for an annual membership fee or access it on the HPA computers for free. As with all medical schools, use the AAMC Core Competencies as a backbone for preparation and seek to develop them through deep involvement in a curriculum and co-curricular activities that are meaningful to you, then be ready to help others understand the meaning that you found in your choices through the way that you present yourself as a future physician in your application and your interviews.

I've heard mission fit is important, but mission statements all seem to say the same thing. Is there something I should be looking for? How do I convince a school that I’m a good fit for their mission?

There are some schools with very distinct missions while some may seem more general, but each mission statement has been crafted intentionally to convey the school’s guiding principles and focus concisely. Use your close reading skills to dissect these short statements. The more that you read, the more you’ll be able to start discerning differences and picking up on key ideas that have meaning for you as a future trainee and physician. Keep in mind there is no single right answer in terms of how to interpret a mission statement and why it resonates with you. Some schools also provide extra information about what matters most to them by defining core values, or give you a sense of their future direction with a vision statement – together, mission, vision, and core values drive the institution as a whole and are meant to serve as a framework and a unifier for the community.

As far as demonstrating your fit within the mission, your actions speak the loudest, and your words should back them up. For example, for a school like Cooper Rowan that emphasizes its commitment to serving underserved communities in its vision statement, your volunteer work, especially within these communities, will convey your fit, as will the way that you discuss why this work is meaningful to you. If a school emphasizes biomedical research and leadership, like Wash U in St Louis and you were a MOL major who led two student organizations, you may stand out as attractive to them.

Learn more about mission fit in this webinar featuring three medical school admissions representatives: Mission Fit: Applying to the Right Medical Schools for You

And a couple of associated short articles:
Mission Statements of Medical Schools: Here’s Why They Matter (by Kenneth Lin, MD)
Understand the Factors Behind Medical School Admissions (by Kathleen Franco, MD)

What are the pros and cons to attending a newer medical school?

In the past 10 years, there has been significant growth in the number of allopathic (MD-granting) and osteopathic (DO-granting) medical schools.  You can follow the status of the new schools as they progress through the rigorous stages of the MD accreditation sequence on the LCME web site (if you’ve got some time to kill!).  Most schools are being founded in areas of the country traditionally lacking in adequate healthcare, with the hopes that the physicians they produce might remain in the region after graduation.  We encourage you to include a new school on your list if you’re genuinely curious about it, keeping an open, yet critical mind throughout the interview process.  New schools may be good options for some of you. 

I’m exploring all of my med school options. I know my grades aren’t competitive yet for MD in the US, but a friend suggested med school overseas. What are your thoughts?

Fewer students with whom we work have attended medical schools outside of the US, so we have less information to work from than we do for US-based schools, but there are certainly many individuals who have successfully navigated medical school abroad, come back to the US, taken the required exams to qualify for residency, including receiving ECFMG certification, and gone on to practice.

There are many schools in the Caribbean, Israel, Australia, among others, that cater to US citizens who cannot gain entry into US programs, at highly variable rates of success. If you’re considering this route, be sure to do significant research into the support provided to students, the success of past students in terms of persistence rates (how many students who started the medical school successfully completed their studies) and residency match rates, the average time to graduation, average debt. Also consider your own comfort level with being so far away from your support systems, your ability to self-advocate, to adapt to new cultures and situations, and your academic readiness for medical school overall.

As competition grows more intense for residency slots and US allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medical programs increase the number of positions in their schools, international medical graduates are less likely to find residency positions, especially in more competitive specialties (in 2021, US MD seniors had a 92.9% match rate, whereas US citizen IMGs had a 61.4% match rate). In many cases, we would rather see students take a little more time to try to gain entrance into a US MD/DO school by taking more classes, gaining more clinical exposure, etc. – if that doesn’t work out, then looking into international medical schools may be an option worth exploring, and you’d be more ready for medical school generally with the additional preparation.